Mimmo Calopresti, one of Italy’s most modernist directors in terms of subject and technique, asks, in this pic, where happiness is to be found today. The tormented characters of his earlier work (“The Second Time,” “Notes of Love,” “I Prefer the Sound of the Sea”) here are embodied by Calopresti himself, playing a man going through a painful existential breakdown. Given the film’s abstract theme, the director perhaps makes an appropriate spokesman for the psychological, emotional and common-sense answers the film proposes. This isn’t the stuff wide audiences are made of, but the Italo-French-Swiss coprod has the conviction and force to find smaller auds in search of ambitious food for thought.
Out of the blue, a strange malaise strikes successful architect Sergio (Calopresti) and tears him away from his wife, son, friends and job. It may be precipitated by the guilt he feels over the death of a favorite construction worker, Gianni (Peppe Servillo), who appears to him as a friendly ghost full of philosophical advice from the Beyond. Casting some doubt on the depth of Sergio’s emotions, we meet him crying in front of a TV reality program. Shortly afterward, he’s beaten up by a quarrelsome next-door neighbor, with consequences that are fully revealed only at pic’s end.
Inspired by his demons, Sergio becomes an apostle of happiness, criticizing others’ lives while radically changing his own. Parading a young mistress in front of his friends, he crudely announces that his wife Claudia (Fabrizia Sacchi) is still in the dark about his infidelity. He alienates best buddy Francesco (Vincent Perez) and wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) with his indelicate sincerity, crashes his car, ignores doctors’ orders and ends up alone and miserable. His young son doesn’t understand him and even his aged parents kick him out of their house. A flash-in-the-pan romance with mysterious beauty Sara (Francesca Neri) ends in disaster, ruling out love as a solution. The most convincing recipe for happiness the film has to offer is Gianni’s humble “bread and salame,” and it is only when Sergio gets back to basics that he finds something solid to hold on to.
With his craggy, lived-in face, Calopresti is perfectly believable as a ranting nutcase, made likeable by his no-frills honesty and the paradoxical wisdom he dispenses. Of all the risks the film takes in throwing together unexpected elements, two that don’t quite come off are the characters of Gianni, who’s a lot more convincing as a ghost than a workman, and Sara, in Neri’s far too ethereal perf as a rich schizophrenic. Most memorable of the supporting roles are Bruni Tedeschi’s brief rendition of her trademark neurotic shrew and Laura Betti as a noisy nun.
Told through the prism of many narrating voices and a shifting time frame, the story has layers of richness and psychological depth. At its best, it has a spontaneous quality like the creativity of an artist quickly sketching a portrait, grabbing whatever material comes to hand. Music plays a key role here, with John Cale and Avion Travel songs raising the volume of Franco Piersanti’s score. They dovetail with Arnaldo Catinari’s fluid camerawork and Massimo Fiocchi sophisticated cutting. Alessandro Marrazzo’s tasteful sets are a pleasure, as are the elegant glimpses of Rome and Turin.